A tool once commonly used by students at the National Cryptologic School to diagram communications networks. (Susan Svrluga/The Washington Post.)

Leonard Reinsfelder’s wife found a note on her car as she was leaving a shopping center one day: “Have your husband give us a call. We think we could use him.”

There was a phone number, and nothing else.

So began Reinsfelder’s career at the National Cryptologic School, which functions as a sort of college for the National Security Agency and the intelligence community.

Reinsfelder, a high-school Spanish teacher with multiple graduate degrees, took the job not knowing what it would be; they couldn’t tell him until he got inside and got security clearance.

The National Cryptologic School is a school unlike any other. It’s extremely carefully guarded, for starters, with a series of checkpoints to get to class.

Some of the students’ identities are secret.

There’s no homework to take home. (It’s classified.)

No cellphones or computers can be brought inside, so the break areas have a surreal, throwback feel. There are landlines, some secure, for checking in on work. Some are not, for checking in on family.

And it has a most unusual mission: Teaching people whose jobs protecting the nation require them to stay ahead of rapidly evolving threats and technology.

The NSA has been sharply criticized in recent years for its efforts to collect all sorts of data, and it also is feared by some; it’s a flashpoint in the debate over privacy and national security.

[Federal appeals court allows NSA phone data collection to run through November]

It’s also huge — the NSA is one of the Washington region’s largest employers. And all those people need to keep learning.

Reinsfelder, now the commandant of the National Cryptologic School, led a celebration of its 50th year this week, reflecting on a history that mirrors that of the country, as its instructors adapted curricula to respond to a changing world.

The school plays a critical role in keeping the country safe, said Frank Cilluffo, associate vice president and director of the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University. In a speech marking the school’s anniversary, he talked of how much impact intelligence information has on policy decisions at the highest levels. “It is greatly and deeply appreciated.”

“You are the silent warriors, those of you in uniform as well as the civilians,” he said. “You save lives.”


Frank Rowlett, first Commandant of the National Cryptologic School. (National Security Agency)

The National Cryptologic School’s roots go back even further than 1965 — all the way to the American Revolution, Cilluffo argued.

“George Washington was America’s first spy master,” he said, with Washington’s men learning to intercept messages from the British soldiers, and to deceive them. “He deployed sophisticated trade craft, including ciphers and codes.”

After the war, Washington declared that intelligence was key to victory, Cilluffo said, adding that that also was true for both world wars as well.

It was after the World War II that some people realized they were in a unique job that required skills no one else had, said David Hatch, the NSA’s historian, who joined the agency as an analyst decades ago. As the NSA grew, its director realized the agency needed a more formalized training and education program for employees as disparate as soldiers not long out of high school and scholars with multiple doctorates.

They also need classes for people who are just joining the shadowy agency: NSA 101.


This classroom for the National Security Agency employees in the 1950s is representative of the type of ad-hoc classroom setup that was used before the National Cryptologic School was founded in 1965. (National Security Agency)

In the early days, there were just eight curricula. Analysts used a pencil, a sheet of paper, and a simple straight-edged tool with three holes – big circle, smaller circle, rectangle – to diagram communication networks.

The “textbooks” were heavy binders with type-written or hand-written pages on radio wave propagation, signal analysis, or languages.


This is an example of the material used in the 1970s to teach a signals analyst basic radio wave principles. (Courtesy of NSA)

The school was an early leader in computer technology, Hatch said, most of which is now obsolete.

Legendary (to insiders) cryptologists taught classes, like the man who had been a world-famous flute player until WWII made his hobby – ciphers, codes – critically important. Lambros Callimahos worked hard at being eccentric, Hatch said, wearing a beret and a Paris policeman’s cape, taking a proper British tea, encouraging his students to use snuff. He made up an entire mythical country, complete with its own history, politics, language, and dozens of cryptosystems the students would have to crack. He had a portrait painted of the prime minister — who just happened to resemble Callimahos, in a resplendent military uniform. He would ask questions such as: “What is the cryptological meaning of December 16th?”

The class was incredibly difficult. A friend of Hatch’s once told him if he dropped a pencil he didn’t dare pick it up or he would have missed three cryptosystems.

Callimahos understood how serious the mission is, Hatch said. “He also knew a lot of what we do can be fun.”

Former students talked about how the classes didn’t just teach them new skills; they learned entirely new ways to think. One described his head literally throbbing by the end of the day.

The National Cryptologic School has always had to be nimble, adapting to the demands of the mission from the Cold War to Vietnam to tensions in Central America in the early 1980s — that’s when Reinsfelder was brought in to launch the school’s Spanish-language program – to the fall of the Berlin Wall to 9/11 to ISIS. Now the changes happen much more quickly.

In 2006, while the school had information technology classes, there was nothing there called “cyber.” Now it has a separate college focused on cyber security and cyber operations.

School leaders ensured that most of their more than 1,300 courses can be taught not only at their satellite campuses but online worldwide through secure connections.

They began regular meetings with their youngest employees, James Aldrich, the school’s deputy commandant, said, because they realized students were learning in constantly evolving ways. Sometimes they were learning on apps that didn’t exist a week ago.

And they have to keep thinking ahead. The school formed a partnership with Dakota State University so that employees, often young service members who joined the military straight out of high school, could earn significant academic credit toward a college degree in cyber operations. (Some classes at the National Cryptologic School have transferable academic credits, so students can continue on to degrees elsewhere. The school has been accredited by the Council on Occupational Education for 25 years; some courses are certified by the American Council on Education.)

The school works with colleges and schools across the country to encourage language programs in areas of critical need, such as Arabic, Chinese, Dari, Hindi, Persian, Farsi, Portuguese, Russian, Swahili, Turkish, Urdu, Korean. That’s how Reinsfelder found himself in a first-grade classroom in Delaware one day, listening to small children speaking Mandarin.

The NSA wants to ensure young students are getting science, technology, engineering and math skills; at a camp in California this summer, one of dozens of camps across the country, girls from low-income communities “went home with little Raspberry Pis, a $65 computer that actually works,” Reinsfelder said. They also learned how to hack drones.

And classes go on, of course, at the National Cryptologic School’s headquarters in Maryland, an old warehouse converted into an academic building with a bland uniformity inside (and an incongruous fountain out front, with a plastic duck bobbing along through the splashing water.)

One day this week, men and women in camouflage uniforms and civilian clothes passed through security, striding purposefully down identical corridors with identical gray doors.

Students?

It’s possible. It might even be probable. But that’s on a need-to-know basis.


This workbook was used in the 1970s and 1980s. (Courtesy of NSA)